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Business deals

India's largest media group looks to Vice and Weather Channel for growth

Investments take place of Bennett Coleman's earlier partnership deals

A man reads a newspaper as he waits for public transport at a bus stop in Mumbai.    © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- Bennett Coleman, India's largest media conglomerate, is making rapid progress in building equity partnerships with foreign digital businesses, including arrangements with America's Uber, Airbnb and Vice Media, as it chases deals with high-profile brands.

The privately owned business, widely known as the Times Group, consolidated its foreign digital partnerships 18 months ago under Times Bridge, a new subsidiary with a mandate to search aggressively for investment deals, after abandoning an earlier partnership model based on revenue sharing. That model attracted interest from digital businesses such as U.S.-based PC World and The Huffington Post.

"For me this is a dream opportunity," Rishi Jaitly, Times Bridge's chief executive, told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview. "My hope is that in 10 years, Times Bridge becomes a global institution... Hopefully our portfolio will stand up for a non-superficial approach to this market."

Times Bridge offers local expertise to companies seeking to enter the Indian market, including the resources and distribution network of the Times of India, a Bennett Coleman subsidiary that is one of the country's best-known newspapers.

Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post, teamed up with Times Bridge in January for the Indian launch of Thrive Global, which provides content focused on well-being and stress reduction. "Times Bridge has a unique power to scale ideas and engagement in India, evangelize the Thrive brand and mission, operationalize and localize our business and products for the market, and connect us with India's leading businesses to help bring our mission to life," Huffington told the NAR.

Rishi Jaitly, chief executive of Times Bridge (Photo by Megha Bahree)

Meanwhile, Vice Media has launched Vice India in a joint venture with Times Bridge. The joint venture now offers content from its TV channel Viceland on the Times Group's TV channels.

"The Times Group has been a standout for us," said Hosi Simon, head of Vice Media's Asia Pacific business, who spent a year and a half looking for a way to launch Vice Media in India. "Others said Vice [could] be part of their TV channel or part of their OTT [over-the-top] service while the Times Group said: 'Use our vast network, fit in where needed,'" said Simon. Over the top is a term used for the delivery of film and TV content via the internet.

Simon said Jaitly and his team had guided Vice in multiple ways, including introductions to government officials, advertising clients, regulatory officials and influencers, and helping the company to hire most of its 45 India staff.

Vice India had a troubled launch because its managing editor and news editor quickly resigned, reportedly because of management interference in editorial matters. Simon said the company's "content speaks for itself."

Times Bridge has also invested in a number of high-profile digital media offerings, including Houzz, a U.S.-based provider of architecture and design content, Mubi, a U.K.-based film website with a subscription video-on-demand service, and Vice Media, based in New York. The latest deal, announced in May, was with the U.S.-based Weather Company, which is creating an Indian version of its Weather Channel app for distribution via the Times Of India website.

Bennett Coleman is run by brothers Samir and Vineet Jain, whose family net worth is estimated at $3 billion by Forbes Magazine. However, Times Bridge officials declined to say how much funding Bennett Coleman has committed to its investment program, or to give details of its assets.

Times Bridge said its strategy is to target businesses that have innovative ideas that have already been proven somewhere in the world; that are passionate about being in India; and that can see value in an investment deal.

An earlier attempt by Bennett Coleman to bring Western media brands to India through licensing deals attracted interest from outlets such as PC Magazine, a U.S.-based computer magazine, the Huffington Post, a U.S.-based digital newspaper now owned by Verizon, and Business Insider, an American financial and business news website.

Launched between 2013 and 2015, these deals were based on revenue-sharing agreements, but the arrangement was not a success. None of the deals gained much market traction -- the Huffington Post deal eventually collapsed -- prompting Bennett Coleman to change its partnership model.

Jaitly said it is more effective to take direct stakes in companies to help them grow. "The way to win is not to merely license," he said. "The way to win is to share in the value. When you're a co-owner with the partner, you are set up for success in a way a lot of these plain vanilla split-revenue licensing things aren't."

Although an initial sign-up of hundreds of thousands of users is fairly common in India, Jaitly said the test of success lay in whether consumers remained interested over time.

"The market is much bigger, much more complicated than that early period of success, and we want to prove, and show, to the world that ideas can go much further in India than that initial 'Hi, hello' period," Jaitly said. He added: "Part of what I've been doing since I joined is not just evangelizing this new model but confronting the old model."

Jaitly, an Indian-American born in New York, has had earlier success in India, building Twitter's operations in the country, and later in the rest of Asia, Middle East and North Africa.

However, media rivals and analysts warned that India is a tough market in which many companies have failed to capture significant market share. "Just by putting in money, things don't operate," said Arvind Agrawal, head of strategic investments for western and southern India for Hindustan Times Media, a rival media group.

"You need to have the pulse of customers. Without that things just go off," Agrawal said. "I don't know to what extent [Times Bridge] has that information."

Girish Menon, a partner at KPMG India, a consultancy, said the foreign companies that Times Bridge is bringing to India will have to modify their offerings for the local market. But the bigger threat to their success was "copycats," which could undermine their growth by siphoning off part of the target market.

"[India] is very good at replicating," Menon said. "For an idea to succeed, it needs to be something that can be protected from easy replication." Some of India's most successful digital businesses are replicas of overseas businesses, including Flipkart, the country's biggest e-commerce trader.

Jaitly said he leans on Times Group "extensively" for at least some of the services that Times Bridge offers. For instance, content from Houzz is syndicated across the Times of India's website, as well as on MagicBricks, a leading real estate site owned by the Times Group.

In a sign of growing ambitions, Times Bridge's latest hire is Margot Ling, a former Twitter colleague of Jaitly in Hong Kong, whose job is to find Chinese companies to invest in and bring to India. Jaitly said he expects to announce some of those deals this year.

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